Choosing Between Gel Nails and Acrylic Nails

Rebecca Wiseman
Manicured nails

Women have a lot of options when they hit the salon to get their nails done. If you're considering false nail application, you may be asked whether you want gel or acrylic nails applied. Before you make your decision, here's what you need to know.

About Acrylic Nails

Acrylic nails have been a staple in the beauty industry for years, and this staying power has contributed to their ongoing popularity. Donne Geer, co-founder of Hey, Nice Nails! explains the application process this way, "Acrylics are applied using a liquid monomer and a powder polymer to create a hard protective layer over your natural nails. Acrylics only harden when exposed to air." When the acrylic hardens, it provides a perfect canvas for applying nail color.

Gel Nail Basics

Applying gel

Jamie White, beauty and product expert at Spaciety notes that "gel nail application provides the strength of acrylic nails with the appearance of natural nails." Unlike acrylic nails, gel nails only harden when exposed to UV light. Geer explains that "Gel polishes are similar to nail polish - you have a base coat, color polish, and top coat. Each coat has to be cured in the UV light for two to three minutes." Both types of nails undergo chemical process to bond to the natural nail, however, there are some differences between the two.

Manicure-acrylic nail

Gel Nails or Acrylic Nails…Which is Better?

Gel and acrylic nails have similar results. They can lengthen short nails, strengthen nails, and make your fingers look longer and more slender. There are some pros and cons that might help you decide which nail application to choose.

Acrylic Nails Gel Nails
How do they look and feel? Acrylics may look less natural than gel nails, especially if applied incorrectly. Some women get sore nail beds as the acrylic cures, too. Gel nails may look more natural and glossy than other types of cosmetic nails. Gel is a thick nail-polish type product. Gel nails are strong but not thick.
How much do they cost? Acrylic nail application costs less than gel nail application. Most salons range in price from about $30 - $60 for a full set of new acrylic nails. Monthly fill-ins will generally be half the cost of a new set, anywhere from $15 - $30. Gel nails are generally priced between a regular manicure and acrylic nails. A set of gel nails or a gel manicure will range between $25 - $60. While this seems like the same cost as acrylics, keep in mind you will pay this every time you have the gel reapplied.
What is the damage to the natural nails? They can damage your nail bed, and according to White, this damage can create a breeding ground for fungus and bacteria. If removed incorrectly, they can take layers of your natural nail away. With soak off gel, the nail beds can become overly dry due to the acetone. The remedy is using oils to moisturize the nails. With gel that has to be filed off, the damage can be the same as with acrylic in that you could lose layers of natural nail.
Are they flexible? Acrylics are very strong and robust, but are not flexible. Gel nails have some flexibility. They are stronger than natural nails but not rigid like acrylics.
How long will they last? When done correctly and with proper nail care, they can last a long time. Fill-ins of the acrylic should be done at least once a month. They don't last as long and are less durable than acrylic, even though they tend to cost more. Soak off gels will last between 10 - 14 days while some women may be able to go a month with gels that have to be filed off.
Is there a strong odor? The application process involves strong chemicals and fumes - pregnant women are advised not to use acrylic nails during pregnancy. Gel nail mixtures lack the fumes associated with acrylic nails - they're considered a safer, more eco-friendly option.
Are they easily repaired? If you break an acrylic nail, you can almost always fix it yourself at home with glue. This will fix it until your next nail appointment. If a gel nail breaks, you may be in for some trouble. It can sometimes be more of a shatter effect than a clean break, so self-fixing a break is not an option. You must make an appointment right away with your manicurist.
How are they removed? The removal process is simple and straightforward when performed by a professional. The nails can be soaked rather than filed off. Gel nails often need to be filed off, although there are some soak off versions.
How are they cured? Acrylic nails are air cured. Most brands of acrylic take 24 hours to fully cure even though the nails and polish are dry. Most gel nails require a UV light for curing, so they're harder to do at home.
UV lamp

While both types of nails can be applied at home, application might be best left to a professional. Acrylic nail fumes may overwhelm you at your house, and without a UV light, you won't be able to get gel nails to harden.

As far as finishing touches, you can paint, you can do French tips, or create other designs on either type of nail. Some people think that airbrushing looks better on gel nails because they have a more glossy finish.

Factors to Consider

While durability and cost are high ranking factors in your decision, you should also keep a few other things in mind. Acrylics are better for some women while gel nails are better for others due to their activity level and job.

Lifestyle

If you have a job where your hands are in water many times during the day, you may find that gel nails are a better option for you. Gel adheres like a polish and water will not affect it like it will acrylic. If you have your hands in water more than just washing your hands every day, the water can cause the acrylic to lift away from your nail leaving you prone to a nail fungus.

The same applies if you are athletic. Sweat will not affect gel nails like it will acrylic. Sweat and body oil will cause the acrylic to lift away from the nail bed.

Budget, Time, and Maintenance

Your monetary budget plays a major role in making your choice, as does your budget for time spent per visit. While the cost seems to be the same for acrylic and gel nails, there is actually a big difference.

  • Manicure-acrylic nail
    Acrylics: With acrylics, you pay for a full set of nails the first time you get them. This visit will be about an hour. Some salons suggest replacing the nails completely every four months, but that is not necessary. A full set will range between $30 - $60 at a reputable salon. That would be month one. Fill-ins are just that, filling in the new growth of the nail with acrylic and making any repairs. A visit for fill-ins will take about thirty minutes. This will cost $15 - $30 for the following months, once a month. In a year, the average cost would be between about $195 - $390 for acrylic nails.
  • Gel Nails: Gel nails are more costly money-wise. Gels only last between 10 - 14 days, though there are rare women who can get by with once a month. Gel nails are the same price regardless of whether it a new application or a return visit because it is essentially an upgrade to a regular manicure. The average cost of a gel application is between $25 - $60 at a reputable salon every time it is done. The average time spent in the salon is about thirty minutes per visit. If you become a regular gel client that cost could be between about $50 - $120 per month or $300 - $720 a year.

Making the Choice

Donne Geer says that hands-down "Soak off gels are the way to go. There's no damage to the nail and it doesn't require any filing." That said, there are many variables to consider when it comes to choosing artificial nails, so you may want to confer with a nail technician in your area to discuss options. Ask your friends who they use or call the Better Business Bureau before going to a shop.

Choosing Between Gel Nails and Acrylic Nails